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2013 24: 2125 originally published online 21 August 2013Psychological Science
Paul Condon, Gaëlle Desbordes, Willa B. Miller and David DeSteno
Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering
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Contemplative science has documented a plethora of
intrapersonal benefits stemming from meditation, includ-
ing increases in gray matter density (Hölzel, Carmody,
et al., 2011), positive affect (Moyer et al., 2011), and
improvement in various mental-health outcomes (Hölzel,
Lazar, et al., 2011). Strikingly, however, much less is
known about the interpersonal impact of meditation.
Although Buddhist teachings suggest that increases in
compassionate responding should be a primary outcome
of meditation (Davidson & Harrington, 2002), little scien-
tific evidence supports this conjecture. Even as scientists
have begun to examine the effects of meditation on pro-
social action, the conclusions that can be drawn with
respect to compassion have been limited by designs that
lack real-time person-to-person interactions centered on
suffering. Previous work, for example, has utilized medi-
tators’ self-reported intentions and motivations to behave
in supportive manners toward other individuals (e.g.,
Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008) and com-
puter-based economic games requiring cooperation (e.g.,
Leiberg, Klimecki, & Singer, 2011; Weng et al., 2013) to
assess altruistic action. Such methods have suggested that
meditation may increase generalized prosocial respond-
ing, but have not clearly and objectively gauged responses
meant solely to mitigate the suffering of other individuals.
To address this gap, we utilized a design in which
individuals were confronted with a person in pain in an
ecologically valid setting. If, as suggested by Buddhist
theorizing, meditation enhances compassionate respond-
ing, participants who have completed a brief meditation
course should act to relieve such a person’s suffering
more frequently than those who have not completed the
The final set of participants comprised 39 individuals (29
female, 10 male; mean age = 25.23 years, SD = 4.66)
recruited from the Greater Boston community for an
8-week study on meditation. (See the Supplemental
Material available online for recruitment procedures.)
Individuals were randomly assigned either to complete
meditation classes or to be in a waiting-list control group.
Those assigned to the meditation condition were further
randomly subdivided to receive one of two protocols:
mindfulness or compassion meditation. We utilized two
separate meditation protocols both to enhance generaliz-
ability and to ensure that any resulting effects of medita-
tion on behavior could not be attributed to demand
characteristics. Although techniques to focus and calm
the mind were taught in both protocols, direct discussion
of compassion and the suffering of other people occurred
only in compassion meditation. (See the Supplemental
Material for meditation protocols.)
Meditation classes were held in a nondenominational
venue dedicated to spiritual activities (e.g., prayer, medi-
tation, yoga). A Tibetan Buddhist lama (author W. M.)
with 20-plus years of meditation experience conducted
both courses. The classes were taught in a secular format
featuring 60 min of instruction, 30 min of practice, and
30 min for discussion; classes were held once a week for
8 weeks. Participants also received 20-min audio-guided
meditations to complete independently outside of class.
Participants reported their daily use of the audio record-
ings each week. Participants received $60 for their
Following 8 weeks of meditation practice or approxi-
mately 8 weeks after initial recruitment to the waiting list,
XXX10.1177/0956797613485603Condon et al.Meditation and Compassionate Behavior
Paul Condon, Department of Psychology, 360 Huntington Ave.,
Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115
David DeSteno, Department of Psychology, 360 Huntington Ave.,
Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115
Meditation Increases Compassionate
Responses to Suffering
, Gaëlle Desbordes
, Willa B. Miller
and David DeSteno
Department of Psychology, Northeastern University;
Athinoula A. Martinos Center for
Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School;
Department of Religion, Harvard University
Received 1/3/13; Revision accepted 3/17/13
2126 Condon et al.
participants were scheduled to come to the lab under the
guise of completing tests of cognitive ability. To obtain a
naturalistic measure of responses to suffering, we utilized
confederates to construct a test situation outside the labo-
ratory. All confederates were blind both to the hypothesis
being tested and to each participant’s experimental condi-
tion. Prior to a participant’s arrival, two female confeder-
ates sat in a designated waiting area possessing three
chairs. Upon arriving at the waiting area, the participant
sat in the remaining chair. After the participant had been
sitting for 1 min, a third female confederate, who played
the role of the “sufferer,” appeared around the corner with
crutches and a walking boot. The sufferer, who visibly
winced while walking, stopped just as she arrived at the
chairs. She then looked at her cell phone, audibly sighed
in discomfort, and leaned back against a wall.
To assess compassionate responding, we measured
whether the true participant offered his or her seat to the
sufferer to relieve her pain. Via text message, one of the
sitting confederates surreptitiously notified the experi-
menter, who was waiting out of sight, whether and when
the participant offered the seat to the sufferer. If 2 min
passed and the participant had not given up his or her
seat, the trial was ended and coded as a nonhelping
response. The experimenter then entered the waiting
area, greeted the participant, and escorted him or her to
the lab to complete a series of measures unrelated to the
goals of the present analysis.
Results and Discussion
As predicted, meditation directly enhanced compassion-
ate responding. Meditators offered their seats to the suf-
ferer more frequently than did nonmeditators from
the waiting-list control group, !
(1, N = 39) = 5.13, p =
.02, " = .36 (see Table 1). This enhanced prosocial
responding did not differ as a function of meditation pro-
tocol; participants practicing mindfulness meditation
were as likely to aid the sufferer as were those practicing
compassion meditation (see the Supplemental Material
That 8 weeks of meditation resulted in
such a large effect—increasing the odds of acting to
relieve another person’s pain by more than 5 times (odds
ratio = 5.33)—is all the more striking given that the help-
ing occurred in a social context whose features should
attenuate such behavior. The simple presence of the two
confederates and their total disregard for the pain of the
sufferer constitutes a classic bystander manipulation in
which both diffusion of responsibility and norms sug-
gesting an acceptance of nonintervention are heightened
(cf. Darley & Latané, 1968).
Additional work will be needed to isolate the specific
causal mechanism for the observed effect more narrowly,
as several meditation-induced mediators (e.g., height-
ened awareness, increased perspective taking) stand as
possible candidates (cf. Hölzel, Lazar, et al., 2011).
Nonetheless, this study is the first to clearly show the
power of meditation to increase compassionate respond-
ing to suffering, even in the face of social pressures to
avoid so doing. In turn, it provides scientific credence to
ancient Buddhist teachings that meditation increases
spontaneous compassionate behavior.
P. Condon, D. DeSteno, G. Desbordes, and W. B. Miller
designed the experiments. P. Condon and W. B. Miller con-
ducted the research. P. Condon and D. DeSteno conducted the
analyses and wrote the manuscript.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
We acknowledge support from a Mind and Life Institute
Francisco J. Varela award. Any views, findings, conclusions, or
recommendations expressed in this publication do not neces-
sarily reflect those of the Mind and Life Institute.
Additional supporting information may be found at http://pss
1. Participants in the meditation condition earned an additional
$20 and entry into a $100 raffle for completing weekly logs.
2. Additional analyses revealed that gender did not affect rates
of helping behavior. Also of import, analyses of self-reported
social networks demonstrated that social-network size neither
increased as a result of participation in the meditation classes
nor significantly differed between the meditation and control
groups, suggesting that increases in social capital from par-
ticipating in a group activity could not account for the central
finding that meditation increased compassionate respond-
ing (see the Supplemental Material for these and additional
Table 1.# Observed and Expected Frequencies of Helping
Behavior Across Conditions
Meditation training Waiting-list control
Outcome Observed Expected Observed Expected
No help 10 13.3 16 12.7
Help 10 6.7 3 6.3
Meditation and Compassionate Behavior 2127
Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention
in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377–383.
Davidson, R. J., & Harrington, A. (2002). Visions of compassion:
Western scientists and Tibetan Buddhists examine human
nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel,
S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions,
induced through loving-kindness meditation, build con-
sequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, 95, 1045–1062.
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti,
S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice
leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density.
Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191, 36–43.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z.,
Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness
meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a
conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psycho-
logical Science, 6, 537–559.
Leiberg, S., Klimecki, O., & Singer, T. (2011). Short-
term compassion training increases prosocial behav-
ior in a newly developed prosocial game. PLoS ONE, 6,
e17798. Retrieved from http://www.plosone.org/article/
Moyer, C. A., Donnelly, M. P. W., Anderson, J. C., Valek, K.
C., Huckaby, S. J., Widerholt, D. A., . . . Rice, B. L. (2011).
Frontal electroencephalographic asymmetry associated
with positive emotion is produced by very brief meditation
training. Psychological Science, 22, 1277–1279.
Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J., Stodola, D. E.,
Caldwell, J. Z. K., Olson, M. C., . . . Davidson, R. J.
(2013). Compassion training alters altruism and neural
responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24, 1171–
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Supplementary Online Material (word count: 977)
During recruitment, all participants self-
reported little to no experience with any type of
meditation experience and none reported completing
any previous meditation course or meditation retreat.
All participants passed a telephone-administered
version of the Mini-Mental State Examination as
indicated by a score greater than or equal to 21
(Newkirk et al., 2004).
Sixty-seven individuals were initially
recruited for the study. Twenty-six dropped out prior
to completion of the training portion. Two others
were removed by experimenters: one who did not
take a chair in the waiting area upon arrival and one
who expressed suspicion about the study. The final
sample consisted of 39 individuals (20 meditators,
and 19 waitlist controls).
Amount of Training
On average, meditating participants attended
6.60 (SD=0.50) instruction sessions and reported
completing independent 20-minute intervals of
meditation 3.74 (SD=1.04) times per week.
Helping Behavior by Meditation Class
Those participants who completed the
mindfulness- and compassion-based meditation did
not differ in frequency of helping behavior,
(1)=0.20, p>.65 (see Table S1).
Gender differences in helping behavior have
been reported in numerous studies, although the
direction of these differences vary depending on
context. Males help more frequently in some contexts
(e.g., short-term encounters), but females help more
in others (e.g., long-term close relationships; for a
review, see Eagly & Crowley, 1986). In the current
study, we found that participant gender did not affect
frequency of compassionate responding, f
out of 29, f
=3 out of 10, !
Furthermore, the composition of male and female
participants in the meditation and control groups did
not differ, !
Design Limitations: Control Group and Social
The nature of our design required that one
group (i.e., meditators) came together for repeated
classes, thereby creating a context that afforded
interaction with other individuals participating in the
study. The waitlist group had no such possibility of
interacting with others due to participation in a
structured class. Thus, although the control group
was matched with respect to interest in meditation
and desire to enroll in an 8-week course, its members
did not engage in repeated interactions with
meditation class members or an instructor. One
resulting concern is that repeated interactions with
fellow participants in the course may have produced
social consequences that could account for increased
levels of helping behavior (e.g., increased social
resources). To rule out this possibility, we obtained a
measure of the number of people that participants
interacted with on a regular basis before and after
training. At pre- and post-testing (i.e., eight weeks
apart), participants received an email with a link to an
online version of the Social Network Index (Cohen,
Doyle, Skoner, Rabin, & Gwaltney, 1997). This
survey asked participants to list the initials of every
individual that they “interacted with in person or over
the phone at least once every two weeks.” The survey
prompted participants to list people in the following
categories: romantic partner, parents, partner’s
parents, children, relatives, friends, classmates, co-
workers, acquaintances, members of a spiritual
group, members of a volunteer group, and members
of unspecified groups. Participants could list up to
seven individuals for each category, with the
exception of friends and members of unspecified
group (up to ten individuals). Our primary interest
concerned the total number of people with whom
participants reported interacting. If the meditation
classes increased social capital, we would expect to
find that those in the meditation group reported an
increase in their number of relationships at post-
testing, relative to the wait-list group.
A 2 (time: pre, post) X 2 (group: meditators,
wait-list) repeated measures ANOVA, with time as
the repeated factor, revealed no main effect of group
on social capital (M
=5.07), F(1,31)=0.21, p>.65,
and no effect of time (M
=5.10), F(1,31)=0.83, p>.37.
There was no interaction, F(1,31)=1.40, p>.24 (note
that only 13 participants from the WL control group
provided responses to the SNI). In sum, participants
!!!!!Meditation and Compassionate Behavior
in the meditation group did not experience a growth
in their social network as a function of participating
in an organized class. Thus, the experience of
participating in a group activity is unlikely to account
for our central finding, at least as stemming from
increases in social capital.
It could also be argued, however, that
exposure to a caring or charismatic instructor might
have exerted an influence, principally through
modeling. That is, meditation in and of itself
covaried with exposure to an instructor in our design.
Although certainly possible, we believe that such a
factor is unlikely to account for our findings in the
present case. If it were the influence of exposure to a
caring instructor, we would expect to find a greater
effect of meditation on prosocial behavior among
participants following the compassion meditation
protocol, where actual discussion of the virtue of
relieving the suffering of others was discussed by the
instructor. In the mindfulness meditation condition,
no such discussions occurred; all instruction centered
on techniques involved in centering attention (e.g.,
breathing), and consequently provided no opportunity
for prosocial behavior to be modeled on or directly
influenced by the instructor’s explicit or implicit
goals. Nonetheless, having established the basic
phenomenon, we believe it fruitful for future
investigation to aim toward disambiguating the exact
mechanisms associated with contemplative training
that may underlie its enhancement of prosocial
behavior, as well as individual susceptibility to such
References for Supplementary Material
Cohen, S., Doyle, W.J., Skoner, D.P., Rabin, B.S., Gwaltney, J.M. (1997). Social ties and
susceptibility to the common cold. Journal of the American Medical Association, 277,
Eagly, A.H., & Crowley, M. (1986). Gender and helping behavior: A meta-analytic review of the
social psychological literature. Psychological Bulletin, 100, 283-308.
Newkirk, L.A., Kim, J.M., Thompson, J.M., Tinklenberg, J.R., Yesavage, J.A., & Taylor, J.L.
(2004). Validation of a 26-point telephone version of the Mini-Mental State Examination.
Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology, 17, 81-87.
We thank Kevin Bickart for assistance with the social network analysis.
!!!!!Meditation and Compassionate Behavior
Supplementary Table 1.
Observed and expected frequencies of helping behavior by meditation group.
(1)=0.20, p>.65! !
!!!!!Meditation and Compassionate Behavior
Supplementary Table 2A.
Mindfulness-based training protocol.
Open awareness meditation
Introduction of basic techniques (e.g., body-scan) for relaxing the body and monitoring the mind’s natural tendency to
wander from the object of attention (i.e., the body).
Mindfulness of a physical object
Introduction and elaboration of practices for learning to calm the conceptually discursive mind for the purpose of attenuating
involuntary thoughts. Stability of attention (i.e., on a physical object) is practiced with the goal of sustaining attention in a
purposeful, non-judgmental manner for an extended period.
Mindfulness of the breathing with relaxation (I)
Continuing practice of techniques designed to instill a deepening sense of physical and mental relaxation, stillness, and
vigilance. When successful, involuntary thoughts subside and vividness of attention gradually increases. This gives rise to an
overall sense of greater presence, calm, and equilibrium.
Mindfulness of the breathing with relaxation (II)
Continuing practice from Week 3. Additional instruction focused on common impediments to meditation practice, including
sleepiness, agitation, and boredom.
Settling the mind in its natural state (i. e., mindfulness of mental events) (I)
Introduction of practices for further refining the meditator’s metacognitive abilities, with the goal of attenuating the
immediate and habitual absorption in one’s thoughts that characterize most mental functioning. When successful, insight
into the nature of the mind and its activities is achieved.
Settling the mind in its natural state (II)
Continued practice with the goal of developing increased relaxation, stillness of awareness in the midst of mental activities,
and vividness, together with heightened metacognitive abilities to observe mental states and processes without identifying
Awareness of awareness (I)
In this final technique, relaxation, stillness, and vividness of attention continue to be enhanced, leading to a perception of the
process of becoming aware, as opposed to only perceiving the contents of awareness.
Mindfulness of awareness and thoughts
Participants use the techniques they’ve learned from all previous weeks and apply them to concentration on the quality of
immediate mental experience. Instead of using breath or body as an object, now mind itself becomes the meditation object.
Particular attention will be paid to working with the arising and disappearing of thoughts.
!!!!!Meditation and Compassionate Behavior
Supplementary Table 2B.
Compassion-based training protocol.
Developing attention and stability of mind
Introduction of basic meditation techniques for focusing attention for increasingly longer periods of time. These techniques
are included in the practice of all subsequent compassion meditation components.
Baring witness to ones current life-stressors and difficulties
Introduction of practice for noticing and reflecting on current life challenges, such as a difficult situation, event, or person.
Participants learn to accept themselves in these moments and relax resistance to discomfort to remain and experience these
states without judgment or a need to remedy it. When successful, this practice leads to the dissolution of discomfort.
Commune with other’s life-stressors and difficulties
Introduction of techniques to develop awareness of the commonality of one’s own suffering. Participants learn to recognize
that all others feel discomfort just as they do. Participants imagine themselves in a community of others experiencing the
Extending compassion outward
Building on previous practice of bearing witness and communing with suffering, participants visualize breathing own and
others suffering into the heart (inhalation) and dissolving all difficulties outward into a spacious sky (exhalation).
Release of suffering
Introduction of practice for letting go of one’s own and others’ suffering into a state of open awareness.
Exchange with others – close target
The culmination of previous instruction are specifically applied to a close other (i.e,. a person that one cares about).
Participants visualize the disappearance of another’s suffering as they breath it inward and send compassion outward.
Exchange with others – neutral, unknown target and a difficult, annoying target
Extending practice of exchange with others to neutral and difficult targets.
Exchange with others – all sentient beings
Extending practice of exchange with others to all sentient beings.